January 19, 2009

Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link

I always find it a little difficult to review a short story collection. My instinct is to take the stories individually and review them one by one, but that would take forever and I doubt if anyone has the patience to read an epic blog post. The trouble is that the stories in many collections are oftentimes either unrelated, or tied together by a general theme as loosely as six year old's tennis shoes. However, the curse of the unrelated story does not plague Kelly Link's dark and lovely collection, Pretty Monsters. While all of the stories here stand on their own, they are united by the theme well expressed by her title: they are stories about monsters - some pretty, some subtle, and some simply monstrous.

"Monster", the first story I'd ever read by Kelly Link, literally made my neck twitch, which is not an easy thing to do. It is also an excellent example of the quality  that permeates her entire collection - the quality of Wrong.

I'm not referring to Wrong in a moral, ethical or societal sense. I'm referring to that subtle ache one gets when something is vaguely Wrong, when something nebulous is unsettling the lizard brain. That is the quality that best defines all of the stories in Link's collection, although it shows up most strongly in "Monster," which is about a scout troop's camping trip, an urban legend, and a monster in the woods. What makes the horror element so effective in Link's work, is the lightness of her hand, the humorous charm of her narrative voice, and the politeness of her monsters - they aren't trying to scare you, they're just being themselves. 

In the subtler stories, like "The Wrong Grave," Link uses communicative ambiguity to great effect. She allows the narrator to connect with the reader, then destabilizes the reader's sense of not-Wrong with the narrator's subtle Wrong-ness. The result of this is that I finished the story feeling vaguely disturbed for reasons I couldn't pin down.

The only place that I felt even slightly dissatisfied with the collection is exemplified by the story, "The Faerie Handbag". It's a completely successful story that borders more on fantasy than horror. Still, the story's narrator is incredibly, if subtly, unreliable. What left me dissatisfied was the potential for a deeper exploration of the narrator - why does she believe what she believes? Why is she telling us this story? Is she having fun at our expense? Is she traumatized? Is she mad? There were a lot of psychological possibilities at play and I wanted Link to explore them. That said, I recognize that this is a matter of writerly preference - while I as a writer who tends to plumb characters' psyches, Link's story functions successfully without doing so. It's just a matter of taste. 

Kelly Link is one of the most exciting young writers around right now, and the fact that she writes genre fiction in the short story form is especially exciting, given how far out of favor the short story form has fallen... but then, that's a discussion for another post. It's enough to say that Kelly Link's collection is a well-crafted, funny and subtly disturbing read. The experience of reading Pretty Monsters is like being tickled while the world tilts around you, and that, as experiences go, is one that I would recommend.

January 16, 2009

The Foggy Foot Annex

Hi everyone - this is patently not a review. I just wanted to announce the arrival of The Foggy Foot Annex, my new, secondary, non-review blog. I will continue to write my sporadic reviews here. The Annex is for everything else, which amounts to quite a lot. 

The Annex is not completely spiffied-up yet, but it is up and running with a shiny, new first post, so give it a look-see whenever you have a moment, or are feeling so inclined. In the meantime, I'm cooking up reviews for Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link, which my awesome husband just gave me for Christmas, and The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, which is one of my all time favorites. I promise I'll get them up here before I'm old and gray.... In the meantime, thanks for reading!

January 9, 2009

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

I finished Lauren Groff's debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton, early this morning. I didn't finish it last night because I was going cross-eyed from exhaustion and promised myself that I would exorcise it before another day passed. It was really that good.

Originally, the premise sounded a little well-worn -- young, ambitious female scholar has affair with professor, it ends badly, she goes home to small town to recover. However, the fact that she tries to run her professor's wife down with a bush plane piqued my interest enough for me to read on, and I'm very glad I did. Although The Monsters of Templeton is a very fast read, it's not a popcorn book - Groff's prose-style alone precludes that. In fact, it's her prose that makes the novel stand-out. Well, her prose and the novel's structure. 

While the unifying thread is that of Willie Upton, the ambitious female scholar with the bush plane, the novel wouldn't be half as interesting if it were only about her (the only real weakness I found in the book were some minor elements of her characterization that didn't quite ring true. But then, that's a matter of personal taste...).

Groff expands the narrative to include the entire town of Templeton including its settlement, the "monster" in Lake Glimmerglass and Willie's venerable family tree. As Willie solves the mystery of her parentage, the history of her family and town unfolds through letters, journals and the fictional work of a fictional genius. From a structural point of view, I enjoyed all of that because I'm a structure geek, but neat structure doesn't necessarily guarantee enjoyable reading. However, Groff peppers in so many dark, humorous and, frankly odd, elements -- a spinster with pyrokinesis, a charming murderess with a cross-dressing sister, a benign, violet colored ghost with a penchant for cleanliness, and the aforementioned "monster" in the lake (which I though to be the loveliest character in book) -- that it's hard not to be charmed by the narrative itself. 

And so, because of all of these things and others that I would rather not spoil, The Monsters of Templeton was a lovely read and I very much recommend it to anyone who likes a bit of a look at the dark side, without tipping over the edge.